Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Márquez--Memories of My Melancholy Whores

In honor of the great Gabriel Garcia Márquez, who died this week at the age of 87, I post the following discussion of his last work of fiction, the novella Memoria de mis putas tristes, (Memories of My Melancholy Whores), published in 2004. A novella, rather than a novel, it has many of the characteristics of those forms from which the short story is descended—the fable, the fairy tale, and the romance.

 The plot of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores is quite simple, summed up in the initial sentence, in which the unnamed first-person narrator says that on his ninetieth birthday he wants to give himself the gift of a riotous night of lovemaking with an adolescent virgin.  The remainder of the book recounts the results of this decision by the narrator, a journalist in a Colombian town.  The most important result is that the elderly hero does not engage in a night of sexuality with a young girl, but instead sits by her bed, watching her as she sleeps. For the remainder of his ninetieth year he returns to the brothel night after night, continuing to watch the girl sleep, hardly ever touching her and hearing her voice only once.  However, he falls helplessly in love with her, and as, improbable as it may seem, she ultimately falls in love with him, and they finally come together as a most unlikely couple on the last page.

Some critics chastised the author and the novella’s hero as dirty old men who have no social conscience about the exploitation of young women in third world countries, but it is a misunderstanding of the tradition of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, as well as Garcia Márquez ’s obvious intention, to label this a perverted book about an old man’s wicked lust for a teenage girl. As Garcia Márquez has suggested in previous works, visiting a brothel does not have the same unsavory aspect in Colombia as it does in America.  Indeed, the author of the classic One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) has praised the brothels of Bogota, where he studied law, even though he was once beaten up there for failing to pay a prostitute. There is no hint of criminal exploitation in the book, no sordid reality of young women made chattel to men with money.  Rather the story is about enrapt attention, fantasy, the romantic dream of pure ideal love.

Although the protagonist realizes that sex is merely a consolation for not having love, he has never been able to experience love; indeed has never had sex with a woman unless he paid for it.  That the final object of his desire is a fourteen-year-old girl has nothing to do with the social issue of preying on the helpless and innocent.  Neither love nor sex in this novella has anything to do with social reality; the story is rather a complete romantic idealization of the art-like object of desire. 

The romantic nature of the old man’s silent observation of the girl as he watches her each night can be compared to the famous metaphor that opens the quintessential romantic adoration of an untouched object—John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  For the young girl in Garcia Márquez ’s novella is a frozen work of art, not to be approached if the true nature of ideal romantic love is to be sustained.  She is indeed Keats’ “still unravished bride of quietness,” a ‘foster-child of silence and slow time.”  The protagonist knows that he does not want her to awaken, does not want to hear her voice, does not want to see her in daylight, but rather wishes only to watch her in silence.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s paean to passion for a child, Lolita (1955), but it is Dante’s celebration of a similar love for his Beatrice that invented this kind of romantic love story. Gustave von Aschenbach’s tragic love for the young Tadzio in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) is perhaps the most famous twentieth century model.  

The most immediate comparison is suggested by Garcia Márquez’s opening epigraph from Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of Sleeping Beauties” (1926), another classic story of idealistic love of an older man for a young girl.  “House of the Sleeping Beauties” centers on a brothel visited by old men who can no longer perform sexually.  Forbidden to have sex with the young women, and thus free of sexual expectations, they lie down with beautiful young virgins who, under the influence of a sleeping potion, are unaware of their visits.  The central character is a man who does not tell the madam that he is still able to function as a man, and his visits are tormented by the fact that he desires more than the girls are allowed to give.  As he lies by different girls each night, he remembers his youthful adventures and contemplates his own future impotence as he grows older. 

The difference between Kawabata’s story and Garcia Márquez ’novella is that whereas Kawabata is concerned with the inevitability of growing old and the longing for death, Garcia Márquez  holds out for the romantic ideal of never being too old to fall in love. Memories of My Melancholy Whores is not a fairy tale for the aged, but rather a fable for the romantic. 

The unlikely her says he is ugly and shy and seems proud to admit that he has never gone to bed with a woman he did not pay. He was even voted client of the year two different times in the red-light district he frequents. He says by the time he was fifty, he had slept with 514 women.  Then he simply stopped counting. He lives in an old ancestral mansion, has no wife, no children, no kin, no pets. He is cultured, surrounding himself with great literature, listening to classical music.  Each week he writes in longhand a weekly column for the local Sunday newspaper, and he is fairly well known in the town.  At one time in his youth he was engaged to be married, but at the last minute he hid from his bride and never again made a commitment to a woman.

The virgin the madam arranges for him to visit is a poor girl who works by day sewing buttons in a clothing factory.  She lives with her crippled mother and provides for her brothers and sisters.  She is afraid of sex because a friend once bled to death when she lost her virginity.  The madam gives her some bromide and valerian that makes her sleep during the protagonist’s visit.  Each night he lies beside her, listening to her breath, imagining the blood flowing through her veins.  Neither he nor the reader ever sees her awake.  He sometimes speaks to her in her sleep, but she does not respond. Her only sentence is the sleep-laden cryptic remark, “It was Isabel who made the snails cry.” 

On one other occasion, she writes an enigmatic sleepwalking message on the mirror when  she goes to the bathroom about the tiger not eating far away. He reads to her from “The Little Prince” and “The Arabian Nights” and eventually begins to write love letters to her that he publishes as his columns. It is appropriate that the protagonist reads fairy tales by Perrault to the young girl, for she is the classic Sleeping Beauty, untouched and untouchable; to waken her would be to make her merely human, and that is not what the protagonist falls in love with.  Realists may say that it is immature to fall in love with a child, with someone you can never have, with someone you have hardly spoken to; however, most great love stories in western culture, from Tristan and Iseult to Romeo and Juliet, share such characteristics.

The old man’s idyll is interrupted by an intrusion from the real world when an important banker  is stabbed to death in the brothel, and the investigation and bad publicity shuts it down for months. The protagonist watches for the girl on the street, even though he knows he would not recognize her dressed and in daylight.  He imagines her in what he terms her “unreal” life, caring for her brothers and sisters, sewing buttons at her work. He feels he is dying for love, but he also knows that he would not trade his suffering for anything in the world. During this separation from his beloved, the protagonist happens to see his long-ago bride-to-be, aged and infirm. He meets with an old sexual companion who advises him not to die without knowing the wonder of having sex with someone he loves. 

He is anguished by jealousy, thinking that the madam Rosa Carbacas has sold his loved one to someone else, and he flies into a rage when it seems that his romantic fantasy love has been contaminated by sordid reality.  But he cannot stay away from his “Delgadina.”  On the morning of his ninety-first birthday, he and Rosa Cabarcas make what they call an old people’s bet--that whoever survives keeps everything that belongs to the other one.  The madam says instead that when she dies everything will belong to the young girl, which will amount to the same thing, for, she tells him in the final improbability of this most romantic novella, that the poor girl is head over heels in love with him.  Radiant, he feels that finally he is experiencing real life, with his heart condemned to die of happy love.  Garcia Márquez thus ends his romantic fable in the classic fairy tale manner, leaving the reader hopeful that the couple will live happily ever after.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

New York Times Notables: Aimee Bender's COLOR MASTER and Ramona Ausubel's A GUIDE TO BEING BORN: Concept Stories

I always check The New York Times Notable Books list each year, because, you know, being in New York, where all the publishers are, they are supposed to know what they're doing.  On their Fiction list this year, they chose only five collections of short stories. (By the way, speaking of New York:  I am currently reading MFA vs. NYC, edited by Chad Harbach, which contains pieces about the "two centers of gravity of American fiction," by writers, critics, students, and profs.  I will make some comments on it in March).
Of course, George Saunders' Tenth of December was a NYT Notable, for it was everywhere this past year.  Like everyone else, I admired the collection and wrote a couple of blogs on it when it first came out.  It was chosen for NPR's Best list (along with Karen Russell's  Vampires in a Lemon Grove, on which I also commented in an earlier post),  Both these books were chosen by The Huffington Post and Tenth of December  was chosen by The Washington Post and The Daily Beast and made the shortlist for The Story Prize and a whole basketful of other prizes.  Such publicity, like that surrounding Alice Munro's Nobel Prize win, is good for the often neglected short story.
Also chosen by The New York Times was Jamie Quatro's  I Want to Show You More, on which I commented on April 22, just after it came out (I did not particularly like it); and the collection of long stories, Dirty Love, by Andrew Dubus III, which I definitely did not like (You can see my comments on a January 19, 2014 post, if you are of a mind).
I just finished reading the two collections on the NYT Notable list I missed when they first came out—Aimee Bender's The Color Master and Ramona Ausubel's A Guide to Being Born-- entertaining but definitely underwhelming in my opinion.
As usual, after I finished  reading the books, I surveyed the reviews, primarily those in print, but also some on line.  I was once questioned about how dare I write a review after having read other reviews.  My answer was:  It has never been my intention on this blog to write reviews of books, but rather to discuss issues relevant to reading and studying short stories; often such issues arise from checking what other commentators have said about short stories. I try to follow the advice I always gave my students: Do your research; see what other folks think before you develop your own thoughts; you may just be repeating what has already been well expressed.
Although I often try to give my readers some idea of what collections I read are like overall, I don't think a series of summaries are of much value. I prefer to focus on only one or two stories contained therein—usually my favorite (for I prefer to talk about stories I like rather than stories I do not, unless, of course, they illustrate an important short story issue) and to discuss the issues the stories raise in a bit more depth than newspaper  reviewers usually do.
Aimee Bender's new collection got more reviews--practically all of them favorable—than Ramona Ausubel did.  But then, Bender has been around a bit longer and published more books than Ausubel, including two previous collections of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and Willful Creatures; this is Ausubel's first collection of stories, although her novel No One Is Here Except Us got good notices when it came out.
Bender's stories are primarily "concept" stories; that is, they are based on a kind of "what if" premise; for example, what if a woman agrees to have sex with her husband only if he pays her for it; what if a woman asked two male friends to have sex for her viewing pleasure?  Many of the Bender stories are whimsical, clever, and, it seems to me, inconsequential—savagely sweet, but basically just empty calories. I have no objections to such stories; I often enjoy them, but like other sugary products, a little goes a long way, and too much might make you feel bloated. Everything depends on the cunning originality of the concept of the story and the controlled cleverness of the writing.  Bender is both cunning and clever.
However, the two most interesting stories in the collection are based on concepts that Bender did not create, but that she got from a previous bit of artifice. "Tiger Mending" is a narrative version of a painting by artist Amy Cutler, and the title story—the most talked-about story in the collection—is based on Perrault's seventeenth-century fairy tale, "Donkeyskin."
Bender is often placed in a category of writers who have mastered—in one degree or another—the fabulist or fantasy story—e.g. the omnipresent George Saunders, the more profound (in my opinion) Steven Millhauser, the deeply darker Angela Carter, the often brilliant Italo Calvino, and the up-and-coming Karen Russell. Most of Bender's stories, to my mind, are less complex and less thought-provoking than those of Calvino, Carter, Saunders, and Millhauser.
The Perrault fairy tale on which Bender's title story is based, "Donkeyskin," can be googled online, if you want to read what inspired Bender to write this story. The story is about a king who owns a donkey that poops gold coins. When the queen is dying, she makes her husband promise that when she is gone he will marry a woman wiser and more beautiful than she is. Of course, the only woman in the kingdom who fits that description is the king's daughter.
The Princess's fairy godmother advises the distraught daughter to agree to the King's proposal of marriage only if he can fill various seemingly impossible requests: The first is a dress the color of the sky, which he fulfills; the second is a dress the color of the moon, which he fulfills.  The third is the skin of the prized gold-producing donkey, which he also fulfills. The fairy godmother then advises her to disguise herself in the donkey skin and run away to a far country, which she does.  But she is so repulsive looking no one will give her shelter or work. In this new country there is a young prince who happens to see her wearing her dress the color of the sky.  He falls so in love with her that he sinks into a deadly melancholy, insisting that the donkeyskin girl make him a cake with her own hands.  Her ring falls into the batter and when the Prince finds it, he institutes a search for who the ring will fit.
 Of course, in Cinderella fashion, all works out as we would wish and they live happily ever after.   The moral is, " It is better to undergo the greatest hardships rather than to fail in one's duty, that virtue may sometimes seem ill fated, but will always triumph in the end."
Bender combines the medieval milieu of the original fairytale with a modern era in which the narrator works in a fancy store that is "Ex-Pen-Sive." The story begins with a Duke who requests a pair of shoes the color of rock so that when he walks on rocks, it will seem that he is floating. The workers in the shop attend modern-sounding "visualization seminars" where they try to imagine what it was like to be a rock, and finally summon the Color Master for help by sending, in medieval fashion, a goat to fetch her.
The Color Master has the special ability to see the world in a thousand times more detail than others.  When she sees a tomato, for example, she sees blues and browns and curves and indentations, shadow and light--not just a pleasant looking fruit.  She develops a color for the shoes that makes the narrator feel the original mountain from whence the colors came in the room; she shoes looks like the rocks themselves.
Later, the king requests a dress the color of the moon, as in the original Perrault tale, but the Color Master is ill, dying she says, and the task falls to the narrator.  With her workers, she engages in a creative-writing exercise (ala U. of Iowa Workshop) about their first memory of the moon and how it affected them.  The Color Master advises the narrator that she should make sure to put anger in the dress color because the king wants to marry his own daughter; however, she forgets to do so.
The king next asks for a dress the color of the sun; again the Color Master who is getting weaker, tells her to put righteous anger into the color of the dress.  Again, she neglects to do so.  It is with the request for the third dress, the color of the sky, that the narrator understands that the Color Master wants anger in the color of the dress, not for any cultural taboo reasons or for any biological risk, but rather for a logic the Color Master states forthrightly: "You birth someone. And then you release her.  You do not marry her, which is a bringing back in.  You let her go." 
When the Color Master dies, the narrator finds her true anger at the injustice of her loss, and she wants to shake her fists at the heavens: "We shake our fists at the big blue beautiful indifferent sky, and the anger is righteous and strong and helpless and huge."  Of course, the narrator becomes the new Color Master, and the Princess escapes her father's demands.
Karen Ausubel is also often placed in a category of writers given to fabulism and fantasy, e.g. Lydia Davis, Kevin Brockmeier, and Steven Millhauser, although she is not, to my mind, as mind-bending as they are.  Like Bender's stories, the pieces in A Guide to Being Born are concept stories.  What if people grew a new hand (the better to touch you with, my dear) whenever they fell in love with someone?  What if the concept of a "chest of drawers" were literalized to the extent that a soon-to-be father, who by his own biology cannot give birth, grows drawers in his chest into which he places tiny toy babies to compensate for his essential emptiness? What if a woman who has been raped by a stranger fantasizes giving birth to various nonhuman creatures, including a giraffe? Ouch!
The most emotionally complex story, it seems to me, is the opening story "Safe Passage." It is a curious choice for the introductory story, for in its fantasy concept—a bunch of grandmothers on a sort of purgatorial ship headed toward whatever lies ahead when one dies—is so disorienting that one might be tempted to read no farther, or at least skip ahead to more easily grasped concepts, of which there are several.
"Safe Passage" opens with these sentences: "The grandmothers—dozens of them--find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there."  Of course, to be "at sea" is an idiom for being lost, and the grandmothers are indeed lost, in the ultimate sense, for they are in a seemingly in-between state, asking "are we dead? Are we dying?" Why this state of being is objectified as being on a freighter is not quite clear, except for the fact that Alice and her second husband once traveled by freighter. The central character, Alice, remembers a hospital room with beeping machines behind her.  Much of the story describes the general state of being grandmothers, e.g. living alone, watching television all day, eating frozen dinners, etc.
The story seems to suggest that all that is happening is a pre-death dream or fantasy of Alice, as she recalls her past two husbands  and fantasizes about the lives of women her age who are also nearing death.  However, a great deal goes on in the fantasy that does not seem to be unified around a central theme or concept about death in general or Alice in particular.  When Alice lowers herself into the water by a rope ladder she has made, she wonders whether her two husbands will be hers again. As the ship moves away from her, she floats on her back, dives into the water and flips back again, in elegant gestures that seem to signify her letting go of life.  The final image is of her throwing her arms wide in a "ta-da" position, and the water flying off her arms in a great "celebration of sparks."
I like  Bender's "Color Master" and Ausubel's "Safe Passage" because they are more ambitious in intention and execution than the more trivial stories, played mainly for cleverness, in these two collections.  However, I am never quite sure of the integrity of the theme of "Color Master," for the anger the Color Master feels about the king's demands on his daughter do not seem to be grounded in anything more profound than, "you just don't do that."  And the grandmother's fantasy about being on a freighter, which is at the heart of the Ausubel story, does not seem grounded in anything intrinsic to the kind of experience the grandmother imagines she is having.
In short, a "concept" story by its very nature, depends on the significance of the concept explored; it seems to me that neither of these stories seems unified successfully around a coherent and profound mystery of human experience.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Andrea Barrett's "The Ether of Space" in ARCHANGEL: Fiction Vs. Nonfiction


If short story collections often play second fiddle to novels, then pity the poor novel, which must play second fiddle to nonfiction.  A quick check of books sales make it quite evident that more people buy nonfiction than fiction books.  And the recent adoption in many states of the so-called Common Core, which insists on students reading more nonfiction and less fiction, seems to reinforce the widespread assumption that no real knowledge can come from reading something someone has made up.

I would argue that the common cause of the Common Core attitude toward fiction is due to a general misunderstanding about how to read "literary" fiction--which the short story is more apt to illustrate than the novel—and a general underestimation of the human value of reading literary fiction.

A recent study by David Comer Kid and Emanuele Castano in Science (vol. 342-18 Oct. 2013), which got a bit of publicity in the popular press, concludes that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests that reflect folks' ability to understand other people's mental and emotional states than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all.

I plan to talk more about this study next month, using the stories of Alice Munro, as examples of literary stories, in order to make some suggestions as to why reading "literary" stories might improve one's ability to identify and understand the subjective states of others, while reading popular stories and nonfiction--not so much..

The general preference for nonfiction might suggest that if writers of fiction create stories that make use of or communicate the kinds of ideas that we often encounter in nonfiction, e.g. science, history, sociology, readers might find those stories more appealing. Is it any wonder that some short story artists, finding themselves at least three seats down the row in the string section playing third fiddle, might make themselves more popular by incorporating nonfiction in their stories. Jim Shepard is one of the best-known such writers.  In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”

I have already talked about this issue in an earlier post on Shepard and his colleague Andrea Barrett, expressing my reluctance to believe that one of the real values of "Big, Two-Hearted River" is to learn about how to catch fish, even as I expressed my admiration for the stories of Andrea Barrett. Barrett, who has published some well-received novels, as well as three collections of short stories. Her most recent collection, Archangel has made the shortlist for the Story Prize this year, and once again, as in her two earlier collections, she integrates history and science into her fiction.

Uncertain about a chosen career, Andrea Barrett was in and out of graduate school in the late 1970's and early 1980's, doing advanced study first in zoology and then in medieval and reformation history.  She held a number of  jobs--receptionist, billing clerk, customer server representative, greenhouse technician, clerk, secretary, and research assistant; in the late 1980's, she did free-lance medical editing, book reviewing, and teaching.   She has said she learned a great deal of biology and medicine from several of these jobs, which she has used in her fiction. 

Barrett has said that she shifted from science to writing because she realized while in graduate school that what she had was a passion for the passion of science; she says that it took her many years to realize that what she mistook for her own obsession with science was, in fact, other people's obsessions. Andrea Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction.  The resulting elegant tapestry was her collection Ship Fever and Other Stories, a surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1996.

Although the stories in Ship Fever focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, Barrett seems equally interested is in the vulnerable human element behind the scientific impulse.  Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense: they involve real people from the past, often very famous scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, and they present the past as it impinges upon and informs the present.  All of Barrett's stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts.

The title story of her second collection, Servants of the Map, is a carefully constructed novella about a nineteenth-century surveyor who is part of an exploration party to the Himalayas. In a series of letters to his wife Clara back in England, Max Vigne discovers the power of writing to construct reality and thus the ability to go beyond mapping and recording to actually “seeing,” thereby creating a map not only of the physical world but of the human mind.

Barrett’s conviction of the basic similarities between science, history and storytelling is based on her conviction that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful.

As she did in Servants of the Map, Barrett has created some links between stories in her new collection Archangel.  A young boy named Constantine or Stan, who appears in the first story "The Investigators," later shows up in the final story as a World War I soldier.  And a middle-aged woman named Henrietta Atkins, who influences Stan in "The Investigators" later appears as a young woman in "The Island." Finally, a young boy named Sam, who appears in "The Ether of Space," later shows up as a central character in the story "The Particles."  I am no real fan of such inter-story connections, for I think they are often promoted as quasi-novels, shifting focus from the integrity of individual stories to novelistic connections. Thankfully, Barrett does not push this linked-story device; each story stands fully on its own.

Rather than summarize the five stories—which deal with such facts of history and science as Darwinism, genetics, manned air flight, and x-ray technology—I will talk a bit about my favorite story in the collection, "The Ether of Space."  Most reviewers favor "The Particles" (chosen for this year's O. Henry Award Stories), which deals with genetics, or "The Island," which deals with the still-controversial issue of Darwinism vs. creationism, as propounded by naturalist Louis Agassiz.  I suspect that those two stories are reviewer favorites precisely because they focus more on what they like to call "hot-button" issues involving genetics, race, and religion than on individual human complexity and universal human themes. Stories that seem to focus primarily on current social issues are more appealing to readers who prefer nonfiction, for they deal with issues that nonfiction often makes its own.

I like "The Ether of Space" best primarily because it does not deal with a current "hot-button" social issue, but because I think it deals with the more general philosophic conflict between what human beings can know and what they yearn for, i.e., between what is and what is desired.

The story is set in 1920.  An American astrophysicist named Owen is intrigued by theories of Sir Oliver Lodge, who affirms the reality of the ether as a means by which the living can communicate with the dead.  The other central character is Phoebe, a writer of popular science books, whose husband Michael, an astronomer, died ten years previous.  The conflict within her is between her scientific acceptance of Einstein's theories and her human desire to believe the opposing  theories of Lodge.  She and Owen correspond by mail, and she challenges his tentative acceptance of Lodge's theories.

Phoebe goes to a lecture Lodge gives on "The Reality of the Unseen,"  in which he argues that there are things known to be real, even though no one can see them, for example atoms, radio waves, radar, etc. He also talks about the reality of mental events, such as thoughts and feelings, and from these analogies, he posits that the human personality exists after death in a form invisible, but which makes communication after death possible.  He says the dead are only separated from us by a "veil of sense" and that the senses have been developed through necessity for the physical survival of the fittest.  He argues that the space that separates us, one from the other, is not empty, that indeed we connected by it and communicate through it.  Lodge is interested in "imponderables," "things that work secretly and have to be apprehended mentally," such as electricity and magnetism.  Since Phoebe knows that Einstein is only "possibly" right, Lodge is "possibly" not wrong—at least about the ether, although she thinks he is utterly wrong about spirits of the dead that exist in the ether.

A reporter in  a newspaper article about Lodge calls him a "typical Victorian," in the tradition of Darwin and Huxley, who still reads his Wordsworth and Tennyson and who "appreciates the poet's wonderment in those days at the marvels of science."

Lodge argues that the ether is the most substantial thing in the universe and that we have failed to discern it for so long precisely because it is so universal.  He offers the example that if we were fish surrounded by water, with no sense of anything but water, water would be the last thing we would discover. He argues that although we cannot apprehend the ether as we do matter by touching or smelling it, we move through it without any friction whatsoever.  He claims that a body can only act on another body through a medium of communication. "Always look for the medium of communication," says Lodge. "You cannot act at a distance without some means of communication; and yet you can certainly act where you are not, as when by a letter or telegram you bring a friend home."  He insists the ether of space is, in the material world, the "fundamental substantial reality," claiming that the whole problem with Einstein's relativity theory is that it rejects the ether as our standard of reference and replaces it by the observer, that is, instead of claiming the potential connection of all human kind, asserts the isolation of the individual and all reality as relative.

Phoebe struggles with the implications of Lodge's theories: "The ether was a home for ethereal beings, the medium by which soul spoke to soul; perhaps God lived there: perhaps it was God himself."  What torments her is the possibility that if Lodge is right, her husband has been within her reach all the time and she could have been talking to him.

Owen writes her and asks if she has fallen into the old trap "of trying to make, from the symbols we use to reason about reality, pictures we can view in our minds?"  He reminds her that we make "models" because they help us think.  She thinks that although she has lost Michael and is at a loss with Sam, "on the page she could make an object that was shapely, and orderly, and on occasion helpful to others."  (This is what Barrett's story tries to do--create an orderly, patterned fiction that help us think about what it means to be a human being in the world).

The heart of the story comes near the end when Phoebe reads what her son Sam has written about his father Michael and the theories of Lodge: "I don't know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart.  What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings."  As Phoebe  listens to her father playing Bach while she and Sam and her mother read, she knows that "space between her and her family wasn't empty at all but held light and music, feelings and thoughts, and a bond that could be stretched without breaking." And indeed, whether she denies Lodge's theories about the ether, she recognizes something that connections all human beings—the music of Bach, for example, something that Carl Jung called  Synchronicity—an underlying pattern or connection between things.

Lodge, who still reads his Wordsworth and Tennyson, theorizes a reality that might best be described as "aesthetic," a theory that may not correspond to external physical reality, but that holds together in a beautiful "wish," like a myth or a metaphor.  It may be "wrong," but it may reveal more about human complexity than what is "right." As William H. Gass says, the core of creativity lies in metaphor, in model-making.

Walker Percy talks about this in his  essay "Metaphor as Mistake" in The Message in the Bottle.
He opens with an example about a coin-operated juke box manufactured by Seeburg Co., which, in the South, was often called "seabird." He says this reveals a feature of metaphor that has always troubled philosophers—that it is wrong; that it asserts of one thing that it is something else.  But Percy argues that in conceiving of the juke box under the "wrong" symbol "seabird," rather than the "correct" description "Seeburg," we know the object better, "conceive it in a more plenary fashion, have more immediate access to it, than under its descriptive title."

Percy also gives the example of a boy who calls a "blue darter hawk" by the mistaken name "blue dollar hawk" because the bird's flight suggests some "incommunicable something," which Gerard Manley Hopkins called "inscape." He says the situation of the boy is like that which philosopher Ernst Cassier calls the "mythico-religious Urphenomenon," in which primitive man comes upon something so distinctive that it seems to have a presence, which gives rise to the "momentary deity," a sense of the unformulated presence of the thing; "the metaphor arises from the symbolic act in which the emotional cry of the beholder becomes the vehicle by which the thing is conceived, the name of the thing."

Or as Andrea Barrett's character Sam says, the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.   Several chapters in my book, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies deal with Cassirer's theories and how they illuminate the means by great short stories make possible human understanding and empathy with other human beings.


I plan to talk more about what is called Theory of Mind and how reading literary fiction improves understanding other's mental states during March and April, as I prepare for a keynote presentation I will be making in May at the Canadian Literature Symposium in Ottawa on Alice Munro.  You can take a look at the program at http://www.canlit-symposium.ca/

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant


Lovers of the short story are mourning the death today of Mavis Gallant, one of the finest perfectionists of that delicate art form. I post in her honor the following comments on her 1996 book, The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant.

Mavis Gallant began her life-long association with The New Yorker in 1950 rather insecurely.  As she tells the story, she procured the services of an agent in America because she knew she was going to be traveling around in Europe and sent him several stories, all of which he said he was unable to place.  It was only when she was destitute in Madrid in 1952 that she happened to see a copy of The New Yorker with one of her stories in it. She contacted the magazine and found out that her agent did sell the stories to The New Yorker and other magazines, giving out a fictitious address for her in Europe, and kept the money. Gallant has said that the feeling of dismay she experienced when she believed every story she sent was a dead failure never really left her.  Editor William Maxwell signed Gallant to a “first refusal” contract, and she subsequently published well over a hundred stories in The New Yorker, about half of which were published in The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant in 1996.

In the Preface to her Collected Stories, Mavis Gallant insists, quite rightly, that short stories are not chapters of novels and should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along.  Although a number of her stories focus on the same characters as they develop over time and therefore could be read together as if they were chapters in a novel, it would indeed be exhausting to read a great many of Gallant's stories one after another;  even though the plots and characters change, they change only slightly, and the rhythm of the prose is fairly consistent throughout this volume.

An example can be seen in two stories that focus on the same characters, "Speck's Idea" and "Overhead in a Balloon."  The first focuses on Sandor Speck, who runs an art gallery in Paris.  As are most art fanciers in Gallant's stories, Speck is more interested in artistic reputations than in artist merit.  The plot concerns his ineffectual efforts to revive interest in a forgotten artist so that he can profit by a renewed interest in his gallery.  However, in this comic satiric story that reads much like minor Henry James, Speck, after much wrangling with the artist's widow for a number of his canvases, fails to bring off his artistic/commercial coup. 

"Overhead in a Balloon," the title story of one of Gallant's collections, centers on Speck's assistant Walter.  Speck never appears in the story but is unflatteringly referred to throughout by Walter as "trout face"; the character Walter is so similar to Speck that with a name change they would be relatively indistinguishable.  Like his boss, Walter is also made the ineffectual victim of an artist who, like Walter and Speck, is more concerned with the practical matters of establishing reputation than he is interested in the integrity of art.

Four interrelated stories focus on Henri Grippes, a Parisian novelist, diarist, and critic, who, like Speck and Walter, lives on the fringes of the artistic life, and who focuses his attention on making a name for himself by capitalizing on the rising and falling stock of various literary and artistic fashions.  In "A Painful Affair," Grippes is passed over to speak at the commemoration ceremony for a wealthy patron of the arts by a man that Grippes feels is only a minor critic and thinker.

 "A Flying Start" moves back in time to the story of how the lesser critic  courted the favor of the benefactress and thus edged Grippes out of his moment of fame.  The theme of changing fashions of what constitutes art and therefore what establishes fame is emphasized throughout the story by a sort of running gag about a planned dictionary of literary biography that over the years is constantly altered because of changes in literary taste and thus is never produced.  In "Grippes and Poche" Grippes fights a continual battle with a tax auditor who, because he is an admirer, saves Grippes from financial harm; finally in "In Plain Sight" Grippes, grown old and crotchety, ironically complains about the increasing commercialization of the arty area of Paris where he has lived for so many years.   These stories reflect a representative side of Gallant's work--her skill at creating comic satire about the artistic life--which partially explains why she is often referred to as a writer's writer.

A series of four interrelated stories follows the life of a man, Edouard, B. who, having married an older Jewish-born actress during World War II so she would not be captured by the Nazis, finds that, although he has never lived with her, he remains somehow responsible for her.  Like many other male characters in the Gallant gallery, Edouard finds himself trapped by past romantic ideals.  "A Recollection" recounts the story of the marriage and the couple's journey to safety in the south of France where they part company.  The second story, "The Colonel's Child," deals with Edouard's meeting his second wife, Juliette; the third one, "Rue de Lillie," focuses on Juliette, who sees through to Edouard's first marriage with the actress Magdalena, as if they were characters in a fiction, albeit a fiction in which she too in entangled.  The final story, "Lena," centers on a meeting  between Magdalena and Edouard when they are eighty and sixty-five respectively, both still bound together by an idealistic gesture many years in the past.

Another significant series of four interrelated stories focus on the Carette family.  The first, "1933," introduces Mme. Carette and her two daughters, Berthe and  Marie, shortly after the death of her husband has plunged them into genteel poverty.  The strict social conventions of the Montreal middle-class Carette family is most clearly reflected by the mother's insistence that the children never refer to her as a seamstress, but must say instead, "My mother was clever with her hands." 

"The Chosen Husband" centers on the family in 1949 after Mme. Carette's receipt of a legacy of eighteen thousand dollars from a brother-in-law makes it possible for the daughters, now in their early twenties to marry.  The plot of the story revolves around Marie's courtship with Louis Driscoll, which provides an occasion for social satire in the Henry James/Jane Austen fashion.  For example, when Driscoll makes his first call and gets choked on one of his own chocolates, Gallant describes it delicately as, "He was in trouble with a caramel," and the Carettes look away so that the young man can "strangle unobserved." 

The last two stories of the Carette family, "From Cloud to Cloud" and "Florida," jump many years ahead to focus on Marie's son Raymond when he enlists in the American army during the Vietnam war and then later when he settles in Florida and marries a rather common (by old Montreal social standards) young divorcee.  The story ends with Raymond storming out after a minor quarrel, leaving his mother and his pregnant wife once again without a man in the house, thus bringing the saga full circle.

Although Gallant is not a popular writer widely enough read to make any one of her stories well-known (She is seldom anthologized in the ubiquitous literature anthologies that keeps short stories alive for undergraduate and graduate students, nor are her stories chosen for the highly visible Best American Short Stories  or O. Henry Award Stories  collections.), some of the strongest and most memorable works in The Collected Stories are the title stories of some of her earlier anthologies, such as "The Pegnitz Junction" and "Across the Bridge."

The first, the longest story in The Collected Stories, focuses on a young woman who becomes involved with an older man (not an unusual situation in a Gallant story) who is divorced and has custody of his young son.  The story follows the threesome on a holiday trip that becomes a minor nightmare when, because of an airline shutdown, they must return home on a train that winds its way slowly and tortuously through the European landscape as the young woman tries to cope with a spoiled child and a man who cannot evenly divide his time and attention between his son and his lover.  The title of the story, of course, refers to an important junction in the relationship of the three people.

"Across the Bridge" also has a metaphoric title.  The bridge is at first merely a physical presence, for the story begins with the narrator Sylvie walking across a bridge in Paris with her mother who has the invitations to her wedding in a leather shopping bag.  When Sylvie tells her mother she has her heart set on another young man, saying she has thoughts of throwing her self off the bridge if she is forced to marry the family choice instead of the man she loves, her mother dumps the invitations off the bridge into the water.  The story develops in typical drawing-room comedy fashion with Sylvie falling in love with her family's original choice after all.  It ends in romantic poignancy as Sylvie takes the long way home after seeing her fiancee board his train, for she thinks it unfair to arrive home before he does.  She says she will never tell anyone about this, that it will remain a small and insignificant secret that belongs to the "true life" she is almost ready to enter. This is the bridge crossing reflected by the title of the story; it is a significant metaphor for many of Gallant's stories, for often small and seemingly insignificant secrets are what give her fiction its life.


The stories of Mavis Gallant may be an acquired taste--delicate constructions that seem to be artless vignettes rather than carefully patterned stories.  Gallant's characters do not seem significant in the large scheme of things, but as Gallant says in one of her essays, no life is more interesting than any other; what really matters is what is revealed and how.

Mavis Gallant, one of the truly great short-story writers, has died


Like her Canadian colleague Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant has always placed her primary literary allegiance with the often-unappreciated short story form.  In her Preface to the Collected Stories  Gallant insists that short stories are not chapters of novels and should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along.  Although a number of her stories focus on the same characters as they develop over time and therefore could be read together as if they were chapters in a novel, it would indeed be exhausting to read a great many of Gallant's stories one after another, for, with their careful and precise style, they demand close reading.

Mavis Gallant is one of those authors often referred to as "a writer's writer,” a title suggesting someone whose writing is so polished that it is best appreciated by other authors; on the other hand, it often suggests someone who is seldom read by anyone else but other writers.  She is not widely enough read to make any one of her stories well known.  Gallant's stories are often irresolute and seemingly plotless. 

When she was writing a weekly column about radio for the Montreal Standard newspaper in the late 1940's, she once described one writer's plays as being unlike the usual radio play because they did not come to a traditional fictional climax, defending this practice by arguing that real problems do not always resolve themselves in tidy ways and that if stories seem incomplete, that is because they are true.  However, in spite of this seeming allegiance to the relatively ragged nature of reality rather than to the neat patterns of art, Gallant claims in one of her essays that style is intentional and inseparable from structure.  And indeed, all of Gallant's stories reflect this apparent paradox.  Whereas they seem relatively artless, simple sketches of minor characters caught in impasses of their own making, they are carefully crafted and highly stylized structures of rigid social patterns. 

Although Gallant has been compared to Henry James and Anton Chekhov, she is probably more related to Jane Austen.  As a result, she poses a problem for readers expecting stories that seem to have a clear point, a metaphoric texture, or a sense of closure.  Rather, Gallant's stories seem to be so forthrightly focused on the everyday lives of her characters that there is little to say about them.  They certainly do not appear to need interpretation, the only mystery about them being the mystery of what they are about. 

However, this seeming simplicity of Gallant’s writing is an illusion, for her stories are carefully structured, highly stylized creations of character interrelationships.  In one of her better known essays, "What is Style?" collected in the anthology Paris Notebooks (1986), Gallant claims that style is intentional and inseparable from structure; it is part of whatever the writer has to say, she claims, concluding--as Henry James might well have--that content, meaning, intention, and form make up a unified whole that must have a reason to be. 

Of course, both James and Chekhov were also accused of presenting little slices of life or huge chunks of verbiage that were really little to do about not very much.  However, Gallant's stories do not have James's convoluted syntax, reflecting the complexity of his characters’ minds; nor do they seem to have Chekhov's calculated conciseness, suggesting that more is left out than put in.  In fact, Gallant's characters don't seem very complex at all, at least self-consciously, and Gallant appears to say everything that needs to be said about them.

Instead of moving toward some explicit or implicit patterned intention, as readers have come to expect in the modern short story form, Gallant's stories seem as if they could go on and on, creating a novelistic "feel" that violates the reader's usual expectation that short stories will meaningfully lead somewhere.  Trying to find out where the meaning lies or how meaning is communicated in a Gallant story is not so much challenging as apparently beside the point.  Careful readers get so caught up in the creation of character and milieu that they do not care what the story means; inattentive readers may tire of the seemingly inconsequential nature of the story and just stop reading.

Like Jane Austen, Gallant presents characters within a circumscribed social world going about their usual manners and morals business without obvious conflict, analytical self-doubt, or troublesome introspection.  The comedy of manners that results is a form that seems usually too leisurely and too detailed for the relatively short space of the short story.  For example, the stories of the Carettes, because they focus on significant points in the life of one Montreal family, are typical of the novelistic tendency of Gallant's technique. 

However, upon reading the stories carefully, one soon realizes that if Gallant had put together enough stories about this same family to fill a book, the result would still have been a collection of short stories rather than a novel.  The reason for this distinction between novel and short story derives from Gallant's selectivity of focus and detail as well as her ironic style.  On closer analysis, the reader begins to realize that her stories are not quite as realistically inconsequential as they first appear.

Gallant has described her method of getting something on paper as a painfully precise play with the language.  In discussing her "outrageous slowness," Gallant says that she sometimes puts aside parts of a story for months, even years.  The story is finished when it seems to tally with a plan she has in mind but cannot describe, or when she believes that it cannot be written satisfactorily any other way.  It is precisely this kind of care for the individual word and sentence that has lead to Mavis Gallant often being referred to as "a writer's writer."


Monday, February 17, 2014

Rebecca Lee's "The Banks of the Vistula" in BOBCAT


One of the many differences between short stories and novels is that often I read a short story that I really like but am not quite sure why I like it.  When I read a novel that I like, its very length usually provides enough development, explanation, sense of reality, and as-if-real characters to make me confident I can explain what I like about the book. Short stories, by their brevity, often seem to be elliptical, cryptic, laconic, lyrical, suggestive, and so mysteriously unreal that I might respond positively to the story, but not really be sure why.
I have been reading Rebecca Lee's collection of stories, Bobcat (shortlisted for the 2014 Story Prize) for the past couple of weeks and, although I like the stories, I am feeling pressed to explain why. It appears that several reviewers have had the same reaction.  Janet Maslin in her New York Times review calls the book "mesmerizingly strange."  She says the collection is "full of shivers and frissons, some surpassingly strange." Maslin seems primarily to be responding to Lee's metaphors. For example, when the plagiarist college student in "The Banks of the Vistula" decides to confess to her professor, she says in her narration, "I had to resort finally to the truth, that rinky-dink little boat in the great sea of persuasion."  Maslin calls this the kind of "eccentric eloquence" that makes Lee's stories "potent and unpredictable."  She refers to these metaphors as having a "mysterious beauty."

Robin Romm says in her New York Times review that she could spend the entire review pulling "beautiful lines" out of Lee's "textured and nuanced" collection, adding that the book has so many good passages that "any linguaphile could spend a great afternoon in a little spasm of dazzle."  However, Romm tries to go further than expressing her admiration of Lee's language. She recognizes that many of Lee's stories do their best work deeper down, as in the way " The Banks of the Vistula" ties together its parts," noting that the plagiarized book is about language, and that the girl begins to see "profundity" everywhere, e.g. birds that "look like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies—shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins…straining against the requirements of such a physical world."  The girl's former disregard for the power of words is transformed into awe, says Romm.

Romm's reaction sounds similar to mine, but she does not have the space or time in her short review to explore and explain her reaction in any detail.  Since I have world enough and time and owe no allegiance to the limitations of a newspaper review space, I will make an effort to explain why I think Romm and I like the story and why we suspect that its best work is "deeper down" than mere plot, or character, or even "beautiful lines."

The first thing we notice about the first-person narrator of "Vistula" is her language, which seems self-consciously pushed, even a bit sophomoric, yet still intriguing and otherworldly.  In the first sentence, she says it is dusk and the campus had "turned to velvet." Ambiguously, she says, "I walked the brick path to Humanities, which loomed there and seemed to incline toward me, as God does toward the sinner in the books of Psalms." Although we know she is talking about walking toward a building named Humanities, the notion of walking toward Humanities suggests thematic significance that we suspect the story will explore.

When she walks into her professor's office, she sees him framed in the window (the first of several such window-framed images); behind his head is the college, looking like a "rendition of thought itself, rising out of the head in intricate, heartbreaking cornices that became more abstract and complicated as they rose."  The transformation of objects into thought, or looking at objects that seem to stand for thought is, like the picture framing metaphors, another repeated motif in the story.

Where did this young woman get this language?  What is the time span between the actions of the story and her narration of the story?  At the time of the events of the story she is only in her third week of college.  We do not know the time of her telling this story, and the only events we know of in between these two periods of time are the events in this story. So, Robin Romm is I think, correct in inferring that it is the events of this story that has transformed her use of language, enabling her to tell it the way she does.

The professor, whose name is Stasselova, teaches a course entitled "Speaking in Tongues:  Introductory Linguistics." The course title is a reference to sacred language, whereby one is touched by the Holy Spirit to speak in a language that is unknown to the person speaking it.  And indeed, the sacred or magic nature of language seems a significant theme in the story.  When the young woman leaves the professor's office, out the window she can see the edge of the sun falling down off the hill on which the campus was built.  "I'd never seen the sun from this angle before, from above as it fell, as it so obviously lit up another part of the world, perhaps even flaming up the sights of Stasselova's precious, oppressed Poland, its dark contested forests and burning cities, its dream and violent borders."   The image suggests another important theme in the story—the relationship or connection between separate people and separate cultures.

In class, Stasselova lectures that the reason for the sentence is to express the verb—"a change, a desire.  But the verb cannot stand alone; it needs to be supported, to be realized by a body, and thus the noun—just as the soul in its trajectory through life needs to be comforted by the body."  The power of the sentence, he says, is that it acts out the drama of control and subversion.  "The noun always stands for what is, the status quo, and the verb for what might be, the ideal." Once again, we hear the theme of the relationship between body and spirit, between things and desire.

When the young woman burns the book to hide her plagiarism and throws it into the water, she recalls that in one of its "luminous chapters," she had read that the ability to use language and the ability to tame fire came from the "same warm, shimmering pool of genes, since in nature they did not appear one without the other."  When she leaves the ravine, she hears hundreds of birds alighting from the elms.  "They looked like ideas would if released suddenly from the page and given bodies—shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world."  Ideas, not objects; that is, verbs, not nouns constitute what is truly human, although obviously ideas and verbs cannot exist without the support of objects and nouns. The former seems frail and must be supported by the latter; however, it is actually the latter that is meaningless without the former.

When the young woman and her roommate Solveig go to Stasselova's office, the light still lingers outside the windows "like the light in fairy tales, rich and creepy." And indeed, the story does seem to exist in a realm somehow elevated above the mere world of everyday reality—a world governed by the power of language, a world of artifice—shimmering with significance.

The theme of the connection between different people and different cultures is emphasized when in Stasselova's office, she asks if she can have some of "this" cream for her coffee. He calls to her attention her little verbal tic of drawing a  line between things she considers "this" and things she considers "that—a perimeter of her sphere of intimacy—telling her he is flattered that she considers him within her sphere.  Once again she looks out the window beyond his head and sees the campus as if it were an hallucination be, "like some shadow world looming back there in his unconscious."

When she and Stasselova go to pick up her roommate at a party, Stasselova walks toward her with drinks, and behind him the picture window "revealed a nearly black sky, with pretty crystalline stars around.  He looked like a dream one might have in childhood."

When she reads her paper to prepare for her  presentation, she realizes that "almost miraculously" she had crossed an invisible line beyond which people turn into actual readers, when they start to hear the voice of the writer as clearly as in in a conversation." She begins to realize the significance of what the propagandist author from which she has plagiarized says about language, in which the language fortifies itself, "becoming a stronghold—a fixed, unchanging system, a moral framework."

When she goes to Stasselova, she realizes that he can see in her all his failed ideals, "the ugliness of his former beliefs."  He has found in her someone he might oppose and thus absolve himself.  She sees behind his head the sunset in which the sun does not seem to be falling but rather receding farther and farther.
She now knows the "murderous innocence" of the book she copied from.  Inside the lecture hall where she is to read her paper, the windows stretched to a full height so "that one could see the swell of earth on which Humanities was built."

When she finishes, she waits for Stasselova to confront her and reassert his innocence in opposition to her presentation, but he does not. Instead, he once again frames himself in front of the room's high windows to teach her a little lesson about the "importance of, the sweetness of," the sentence.  She thinks at that moment she did long for one true sentence of her own, "to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity—the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows."  The story ends with her looking out the window above Stasselova's head at the storm clouds which were dispersing, as if frightened by some impending goodwill, and I could see that the birds were out again, forming into that familiar pointy hieroglyph, as they're told to do from deep within."

It is not the foregrounded plot story, so easy to summarize, about  the ethical/moral issue of a young woman plagiarizing a college paper, or even the political moral issue of the professor's betraying his home country Poland by joining the Russian army, that makes this story seem so strange and nuanced, so textured and eccentric, as Janet Maslin and Robin Romm have suggested.  Nor is it merely the separate self-conscious metaphors that reviewers like to quote, as beguiling as they are.  Rather what makes the story such an intriguing and engaging story is the pattern of significance created by the repeated reference to the relationship between words and things, objects and ideas, nouns and verbs—indeed how language has the power to illuminate, to unify, to expose, to create.

The young woman's  increasing ability to identify with the complexity of her professor's past decisions, however misguided they might have been, and her increasing ability to transform mere events and objects into the stuff of human empathy and imagination, is made manifest by the very story she tells.  And by means of the imaginative world she creates, a result of the stuff of Humanities, her professor is transformed into a radiant image of the human mind in all its simultaneous power and frailty.


One can like the story without hypothesizing this complex pattern of thematic significance created by language.  However, it seems to me that making an effort to articulate this thematic complexity "makes speak" the mystery of the story's appeal.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

David Means' "The Mighty Shannon" and Andre's Dubus III's "Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed"



I have long had an uneasy suspicion that really good short stories embody a philosophic, psychological, theological, or interpersonal theme about the complexity of what it means to be a human being—basic, universal issues.  I have talked about the importance of universal theme many times on this blog—indeed every time I have discussed the stories of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Bernard Malamud, William Trevor, David Means—to mention only a few of the really great short story writers.

One of the differences between really good short stories and merely ordinary short stories, I am convinced, is that "ordinary" short stories and most novels are more concerned with as-if-real characters and events than with  themes, or, if they do seem to be "about" something,  their themes are often obvious and simplistic.

This makes me "uneasy" because it suggests that good short stories make demands on the reader that ordinary short stories and most novels do not—a claim that smacks of elitism and the academic because it suggests that one has to "learn" how to read good short stories, but not how to read ordinary short stories and most novels.  It makes me uneasy because it may cause some readers to huff and sneer that such good stories may be fit only for students and professors in the classroom, not for ordinary people in the real world (whatever that is)

This issue occurred to me again recently when, after reading Andre Dubus III's story, "Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed," in his new book Dirty Love, I read a story by David Means in the February issue of Harper's Magazine entitled "The Might Shannon." Although both stories are ostensibly about one man's attempts to deal with his discovery that his wife is having an affair, I thought Dubus's story was just an ordinary one, that is, a story with an obvious, even simplistic theme; while I thought Means' story was a very good one, that is, a story with a complex philosophical theme about what it universally means to be human.

Now, in all fairness, I have to admit  a predisposition:  I have always admired David Means' stories and have always respected him for remaining staunchly committed to the short story form.  And I must also confess I have always thought Andre Dubus III's fiction was second rate—just ordinary novelistic House of Sand and Fog stuff, casually realistic and carelessly written, about as-if-real characters and interesting plots that not very challenging.

Furthermore, I surely don't have to remind anyone that I am partial to short fictions, much preferring them over long fictions. Dubus's story is a "short novel"—about 25% of his book; whereas Mean's story is a very short story— about five and a half pages in Harper's. And, I would argue ,Dubus's piece is not a tightly woven, thematically dense novella like the classics of the "novella" genre, but rather a "novel" that just happens to be relatively short.

Finally, I have to admit, once again, that I greatly admire writers who love the language and treat it carefully, making it an inextricable part of the narrative, not merely a transparent means by which the narrative jogs realistically along, a clear glass through which to view the world (whatever that is). Given this criteria, there is no doubt in my mind that David Means is a much more scrupulous artist of language than Andre Dubus III.

If all that makes me an effete snob, a dilettante, an ivory tower academic just plain out of touch with the gritty world of everyday reality, one of those ethereal characters who cannot abide Junot Diaz, but loves Henry James—then so be it.

Let me make a few comments about the Dubus story first, for it is fairly easy to dismiss. The central character, Mark Welch, aged 56,, has been married to his wife Laura, also 56) for 24 years.  When he suspects that Laura is having an affair (because one night he senses she holds his testicles as if she is comparing them to someone else's), he hires a detective to make a video of the man treating her to oral sex in a parked car.  Welch forces his wife to watch the video, and makes a wreck of the kitchen when she says he made her do it by always criticizing her. Much of the rest of the story focuses on his alternating between rage and remorse—imagining what his wife has been doing with the man, taking a peek at her email record, planning on how to kill the man, convincing himself that he doesn't care because she has bad breath and has never really been a good cook, having a sexual encounter with another woman, fantasying she will return to the man she has loved all along, etc. etc.—all pretty pedestrian soap opera stuff that goes on and on repetitively and predictably.

In order to provide some motivation for the affair and some opportunity for Mark to reach an inevitable self-recognition, we are given some background to his becoming a successful project manager by being more than a little ruthless and, from his wife's point of view, just plain bossy. In a revelatory confrontation she tells him, "You treat me like I work for you. You always have.  Well I don't work for you all right?"

The story ends with Mark thinking maybe he will apologize to her, make it all up to her, pay more attention to her, let her do whatever she wants.  Standing at the threshold to his home, he hears her footsteps in the entryway: "his heart in his head once again for he did not know if he was even up for any of this, this change from change, the door swinging inward as he straightened, his wife's face lovely and surprised and waiting."

What is this story about?  Well, it is about what many soap operas on television are about.  Nothing more. Simplistic, predictable, pedestrian, ordinary.  On finishing it, a reader might tsk tsk testily at Mark's bossy attitude toward his wife, nod knowingly,  and smile smugly.

David Means does not give a name for the male character in his story; he is simply "I" in this first-person account that begins with a pain in his hips and lower back and shoulders and neck, for which he consults a doctor. The doctor says he needs to look at the man's stress levels, suggesting that it is possible that his musculoskeletal pain is related to his emotional life.  The idea that something inner might be related to something outer is echoed when, standing vulnerable  in his underwear, the man looks out of the examining room window and sees his reflection, "while a barge navigated through his belly and the buildings of Fort Lee, New Jersey, stabbed through his breastbone."

The man thinks a great deal about his condition, just as Mark Welch does in Dubus's story, but he thinks in longer, more complex sentences. For example, after the doctor's tentative diagnosis, he thinks:

"I did not want to acknowledge that one way or another my so-called migrating pain was connected to what was going on at home, not only with Sharon, who at that time was in the middle of her affair with her colleague at the firm, but also with my own thing with Marie, who was at that time my lover but also, in truth, a responsive gesture (as Dr. Haywood would later call it)."

The theme of the relationship between inner and outer is suggested again in the following long, well considered sentence: "Even there on that crinkling sheet of paper, with sweat beading on my brown, listening to Dr. Zuck breathe while the light outside faded and the light inside, fluorescent and shrill, pressed the glass, I had a sense that whatever was going on with my body was eventually going to find a way to relate itself to the extremely tactile facts of my life, my son, the house, the yard, as they, in turn, would relate to vague, nebulous, cloudy sensations that surrounded love, desire, loneliness, need."

Compare this with Dubus's more obvious description of his character considering what to do about his cheating wife:

"Wasn't it time to let her go?  But to allow the question into his head and heart was to allow a black tumor to take residence there where it would grow.  But the only thing growing was this distance between himself and the world he supposedly lived in.  He's become a man things happened to, and he found himself groping for the tools of his work: Risk response and its plans for contingency and mitigation.  The monitoring and controlling of the results of those plans."

The man in Means' story says he is aware of his "predicament as it would unfold in the next few months…until, finally, the story of my pain—as Dr. Haywood would describe it—would merge with the story of my relationship with Sharon and our simultaneous assured destruction in the form of two affairs."  Telling the story years later, he has trouble dividing the blame between himself and his wife, although he knows she betrayed him first and he responded in kind; he does admit, however, because he is the one telling the story, "the whole unseemly thing was ultimately on my shoulders."

One indication of the difference between the level of complexity, both syntactic and psychological, in the two stories, are examples in each of a kind of Henry Jamesian self-reflexive awareness.

When Mean's central character describes an encounter with his son Gunner's Spanish teacher, with whom he later has a brief retaliatory affair, she greets him with "Hey, Gunner's Dad." He avoids mentioning Gunner.  "Looking back, I think that one thing that sparked our relationship was her awareness of my avoidance, and my awareness of her awareness, which fed a mutual effort to keep the two arenas separate, opening up a glorious no-man's land, a pure space, unbinding and wild."

When a woman smiles at Dubus's central character as if she has known him longer than she has, the narrator  says: "This makes him feel comfortable which then makes him uncomfortable for feeling so comfortable."

It just seems to me that the Means double awareness is more complex than the Dubus one.

Midway through "The Mighty Shannon," the narrator/central character enacts a repetition of the inside/outside theme that may be quite familiar to literary readers.  When Marie sneaks over to his house during a lunch break while his wife is not home, we have this passage:

"Inside my house, I felt not only the guilt and fear you'd expect but also the same brooding sense of myself I'd get two years later at our annual holiday cocktail party, standing at the window and looking out at the cold, wintry street while behind me someone shook a shaker with an icy sound like a comet flying through the din of chat, and I stared outside for a few beats beyond civility and felt, behind me, the party I was hosting awaiting my return.  One more man staring out his window feeling the weight of his obligations shove him into a loneliness that was almost, but not quite, beyond comprehension."

Compare Means' passage with this famous account of a man looking out a window at a wintery scene:

"Gabriel's warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window.  How cool it must be outside!  How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!  The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument.  How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!"

That tapping of Gabriel's trembling fingers is picked up in Joyce's grand final paragraph:

"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight… It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Lest you think this is an accidental echo, Means' central character says he felt the same sensation when he went on a second honeymoon with his wife to Ireland.  Indeed, the title of the story comes from his recalling a third honeymoon when he and his wife cross a bridge over what one of them refers to as "the mighty Shannon."  Joyce's "The Dead" is a classic of the short story genre because it explores the theme of the mystery of the inner life, the secret life, so delicately.  David Means pays a subtle tribute to the story.

Another example of the inside/outside theme occurs when Means' character describes one afternoon when his cell phone rings and he hears his wife's voice as if far off, and he realizes it is a "pocket dial" and that her phone is in her purse.  He hears a giggle that he knows she makes only in response to something said "in the most intimate terms."  He shouts, "Hey, hey, I'm here in your purse, Sharon.  I'm right here in your fucking purse."  He admits that now, years later, he is still ashamed of being privy to a moment of her life from that vantage: "It was as if I'd gone behind her face for a moment and stared out through the bright blood spume of her eyelids."

This is the most crucial example of the inner/outer theme Means creates throughout the story because it suggests that most important ability to empathize with the other—to be able to go out of the self and see as the other sees.  This is, indeed, the heart of "The Mighty Shannon."

The story ends with the central character and his wife Sharon sitting on their back deck with drinks in hand, recalling their meeting with a marriage counselor and laughing at how he had fallen to the floor of the office because of his pain.  He says if you were hiding in a bush near their deck you would hear the "intimate forgiving sound" of Sharon's laugh and his own responsive laugh, an entwined sound that is like a "Bach counterpoint: two themes working together in a helix of motion, twisting around a dark heavenly void that might be where God, if he lives, lives.  Hearing it, you'd be able to tease out the story that had produced the laugh.... If you listened with enough sensitivity, you'd hear in our laughter…the first hint of a playfulness that is, if you're lucky, the wonderful byproduct of forgiveness."

It just seems to me that David Means' story is a better example of the genre than Andre Dubus III's story—more complex, more profound, more subtle, more artistically sound.  The basic theme of the difficulty of moving from the outer of the other person to the inner is an important one, and Means explores it in a style that syntactically matches that complex theme. As in a Henry James story, the reader must listen to the rhythm with enough sensitivity to "tease out the story."


*A footnote here:  In his story "A River in Egypt," in his most recent book The Spot (2010),  the central character Cavanaugh is an assistant art director who has just been dropped from a big budget sci-fi movie because his design was “too real, too clear.” His wife Sharon is a lawyer. His son Gunner must take a test for cystic fibrosis. One of the toys the child plays with is called the Question Cube and one of the questions is “What river is in Egypt?  The Nile? The Hudson? The Thames? Or the Kalamazoo?”  It's a delicate story about a father trying to come to terms with his son’s possibly fatal disease.  The story ends with a moment in which the father, who has been concerned with his own anxiety, shifts to the boy lying in the back seat of the car. The diagnosis is still somewhere off in the future. I don't know if this is an indication that Means is working on a set of linked stories for his next collection.